Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island


Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1971


“Treasure Island” by Scottish author R.L. Stevenson belongs to a rather small subcategory of so-called world literature: young adult fiction. Between 1881 and 1882, the story is published in individual chapters in the weekly children’s literary magazine “Young Folks”. Since it is meant to be a story for boys, the author explains, there is “no need of psychology or fine writing”, a rather plain style will do. But even with – or perhaps because of – that plain style, the novel has sparked the imagination of countless children and those adults who have remained children at heart, and sent them on adventures with Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. That we imagine pirates with a peg leg and a parrot perched on the shoulder must be credited to “Treasure Island”, just like the ideas we have of pirate ships, tropical islands with buried chests, and treasure maps, on which the treasure is marked with an x.


That many of these ideas are not originally Stevenson’s own doesn’t bother him much. In an essay on how he wrote the novel he says that he never enjoyed working on a book as much as he enjoyed working on “Treasure Island”, and adds: “It is not to be wondered at, for stolen waters are proverbially sweet. [...] No doubt the parrot once belonged to Robinson Crusoe. No doubt the skeleton is conveyed from Poe. I think little of these, they are trifles and details; and no man can hope to have a monopoly of skeletons or make a corner in talking birds.


But at least in one respect Stevenson has created something genuinely of his own in “Treasure Island”: the treasure map. Maps immensely fascinate the author and fuel his fantasy. At first Stevenson draws the fictional map of treasure island without deliberate intention of doing something with it. Afterwards, the story grows almost organically from the invented scene. For the author “the map is the chief part of his plot”, a more important point of reference than the allusions to real historical pirates (Blackbeard) or the name of the dead man’s chest, which Charles Kingsley had given to a tropical island and which Stevenson turned into the now-famous pirate song (“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, Yo Ho Ho and a bottle of rum!”).


And the island? Similarities and references to a number of possible real islands have been pointed out, according to which the treasure island could either be one of the Virgin islands, one of the Shetland islands, lie before Cuba, or Costa Rica. What we do know for certain, however, is that Stevenson was a sickly child and continued to have a weak constitution as a grown man. The harsh Scottish climate doesn’t become him and he writes with typical Stevenson-humour: “I love my native air, but it does not love me.” So he travels a lot and lives in different places around the world, among them England, the USA, and France. He undertakes extensive journeys to the Pacific, to Hawaii, Samoa, and New Zealand. He spends the evening of his life on Samoa, where he is also buried – definitely not the worst place to rest in peace. 


by Teresa Teklić


Signet Sunflower Foundation